I am driving over the International Bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez with Julián Cardona, a slender, dark-haired man with a soft voice and a kind of quiet, slow-burning outrage. Cardona, a professional photographer, has spent years documenting the exodus from his native country, the drug trade, the collusion between Mexico’s police and the traffickers in narcotics and human flesh. He is taking me on a tour of Juárez, but we won’t be visiting any museums or historic sights. We are going to tour the City of Death—Juárez’s slums, or colonias.
They sprawl into the Chihauhan desert as far as I can see, mile upon mile of squatter shacks, the better ones adobe or block brick, the others jury-rigged structures of plywood, sheet metal and crating lumber, roofs held down by truck tires, yards fenced with discarded pallets and filled with broken-down cars and every imaginable kind of junk. None of the streets are paved or lighted, the wind blows dust everywhere, feral dogs rummage in drifts of trash, and running water, where there is any, consists of a standpipe in the ground with a plastic bucket beside it. The workers in the city’s crowded factories live here, and as we enter one slum, Anapra, convoys of buses are arriving to drop off the day shift and pick up the night shift: Scores of buses, the names of the factories they service—Delphi Corporation, Siemens, RCA—displayed in their front windows. Hundreds of people get off and on, some fairly well dressed, others in clothes that look to have been filched from a Salvation Army dumpster. Everyone appears worn-out and dispirited. A feeling of hopelessness lingers in the air with the stench of raw sewage and bus fumes. The squalor here is as bad as anything I’ve seen in Africa or southeast Asia.
Later, passing through an industrial wasteland of maquiladoras—giant sweatshops turning out 200,000 products for export, everything from auto parts to TVs to air conditioners—I notice black crosses painted on telephone poles and lampposts and ask Cardona what they signify. He explains that they commemorate the hundreds of girls and young women who have been murdered in the city since 1993, shot, stabbed or strangled to death after being raped, their bodies tossed into arroyos, or garbage dumps, or shallow graves in the desert. The victims were between 10 and 30 years old, most of them women who’d come to Juárez from outlying villages to work in the factories. Although many suspects have been arrested, the crimes have gone unsolved, because, or so go the various conspiracy theories, the killers are the sons of powerful men who have paid off the police, or are the police themselves, or are drug kingpins with connections to high government officials.
“The city manufactures death,” Cardona murmurs in an uninflected voice. “The main product here is death. The kind of death the girls suffered, another kind of death. It is death for a fourteen-year-old to stand in front of a machine all day with no hope for an education or a better future.”
We finish the tour by the wall that was put up a decade ago in the Border Patrol’s Operation Hold-the-Line. It’s a prototype for the barrier some want to stretch across Arizona. Fifteen feet high, made of steel, it runs across a valley beside the Rio Grande for what looks like two or three miles, each end pinned to a hill. A rather strange barrier, because you don’t have to climb over it or go through it or tunnel under it to get to the other side; all you have to do is walk around it, and just for the hell of it, I do. A few steps and I’m in the dry bed of the river, a few more, and I’m in Los Estados Unidos, where hope can be found. Beyond, a railroad embankment rises, hills beyond that, and atop one I can see a Border Patrol vehicle. No one swoops down to apprehend me. I stand there, putting myself in the shoes of a young Mexican woman who labors eight or ten hours a day, six days a week, and worries that her job will be outsourced to China and lives in constant fear that she’ll be raped and murdered on her way home from work. Over there is El Paso, where she can be safe and earn more in an hour flipping hamburgers than she can standing all day in the front of the maquiladora machine.
Ask yourself what you would do.